Blonde Redhead Penny Sparkle

[4AD; 2010]

Styles: dream pop, synth pop
Others: Cocteau Twins, The Knife

I have nothing but love for Blonde Redhead. They’re one of those rare, remarkable bands that, despite their long history and ever-growing popularity, have managed to exist on the outskirts of the indie spotlight, unassumingly honing their craft and evolving their musical vocabulary. In 17 years and seven albums, they’ve never taken the easy road or settled into a single sound, but consistently forged ahead toward new sonic territory. Unfortunately, 2007’s 23 was the first hint that I might not care much for their destination.

Electronic textures have become more central to Blonde Redhead’s music since their 2000 breakout, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. 23 seemed to complete their transformation, stripping away the baroque orchestral flourishes of Misery Is a Butterfly and focusing on warmer synth textures. In comparison to the albums that preceded it, 23 was a little underwhelming, but it was buoyed by some suitably dramatic, higher-energy tunes like “S.W.” and “Spring and by Summer Fall.” Penny Sparkle moves the band further along in this direction, but lingers more obstinately in the down-tempo range. The result is an album that, despite the lushness and mystery of its individual tracks, quickly trails off into monotony.

Album opener “Here Sometimes” neatly encapsulates my reservations about the work as a whole. The song begins with a soft drum loop, the gentle reverberations of an electronic trill, and Kazu Makino’s breathy intonations, building gradually toward a fuzzy, three-note synth riff that completes the melody’s structure. And yeah, I know that drum loop is being played by a real-live human, Simone Pace, and the fuzzy synth sound is probably a guitar line run through some crazy distortion, courtesy of his brother Amedeo; but it’s starting to sound less human, and I’m struggling to locate any remnants of what initially drew me to this band.

Which isn’t to say that there’s nothing worth exploring here. “Not Getting There” and “Oslo” would have fit comfortably among some of the better selections from their last album, but the pensive mood of Penny Sparkle is best represented by the Amedeo-led “Will There Be Stars,” with its bed of throbbing bass and ghostly, chittering synth. Even better is “Black Guitar,” a rare duet from the husband and wife team, which features some of the band’s most deliciously elliptical lyrics: ”So long as your mind falls for life/ Then life will fall for you/ And I will love you for/ Another life and another you.” But few of even the best tracks reach the heights of their previous work, and the relentlessly slow pace of the album becomes exhausting.

One of the aspects of Blonde Redhead that I always appreciated was their ability to seamlessly integrate contrasting elements into a single coherent picture. Songs of intense beauty and urgency could sit side-by-side with lurching, more oddly signatured numbers. Those instincts certainly haven’t disappeared, but the range between tracks seems to have narrowed. And frankly, at the risk of sounding reactionary, I really miss the way they used to rock. I know that it’s pointless to look backwards and pine for the bygone phases of a band’s career, but a well-placed barn-burner like “Suimasen” or “Melody of Certain Three” or even a poppier track like “Equus” could have worked wonders here.

So while Penny Sparkle might constitute yet another step forward on the band’s musical journey, it’s not one that I feel compelled to follow them on. Their knack for writing haunting melodies remains unchallenged, but I miss the days when I could be surprised or startled by a Blonde Redhead album. Sorry guys, but for the time being, I think it’s best if we go our separate ways.

Links: Blonde Redhead - 4AD

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